Wicklow Town native, Danny Earls is a man on an American mission. Having risen to the top and conquered the footballing world, he is now out to master the comic book equivalent. While the 31-year-old is now solely focussed on art, he has had an enriched footballing career, despite finishing up at the tender age of 28.
The affable Earls points out during our chat, that footballing life was about much more than the destination, the journey was often more thrilling and character building. Earls’ journey touches on, ex-Ireland coach, Steve Guppy’s repetitive training; playing football on the White House lawn; bags of urine, gun shots and forgotten boots in the Champions League; Kevin MacDonald at Aston Villa; learning to look after number one at 16; Ireland’s most haunted house and Danny Cipriani.
“I loved America, even when I was young, I loved American films”, concedes Earls.
His 18-year-old self, travelled to check-out the Rochester Rhinos’ setup, as his time at Aston Villa had petered out. Having impressed Rhinos’ new player/coach, Steve Guppy when they were both with Villa, Earls was invited out to New York State and then offered a contract. “I was petrified, what was I doing here? The thing that put me off initially was that I had to get a bus from Rochester to New York, it was 8 hours, into Port Authority in New York City and back out to the airport. I can’t go back to that. That’s way too big for me – coming from Wicklow – that’s a massive place. No chance.” Although initially reluctant, he overcame his fears and doubts and accepted the challenge, travelling 5,000 km from his Wicklow base. Before that, he had transferred from Wicklow Rovers to Aston Villa via the renowned academy at St Joseph’s Boys in South Dublin. He spent three years with the Villains, two in the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) and one in the reserves.
Only two rules at Villa
“We were told on day one sitting down in Villa, there are two rules at the football club. Rule number one is, look after number one – look after yourself. Rule number two is, never forget rule number one.”
He had a tough schooling at Villa under ex-Ireland assistant manager, Kevin MacDonald and Tony McAndrew. MacDonald subsequently departed Villa after an investigation into his conduct, following a complaint from ex-Villa, Bohemians and Ireland midfielder, Gareth Farrelly. “The way they coach isn’t for everyone and some of the lads aren’t wired to take it. I do get that, but there was never any malice in it, that is my honest opinion. I would back Kev to the hilt, I would back Tony to the hilt. I could not say a bad word about them.” Earls bought into their tough style, an approach he felt set him up to deal with knock-backs in everyday life. “They were two of the toughest, toughest managers I’ve ever had. They were amazing managers. They would kick lumps out of you to be fair if they trained with you. I bought into that – I did love it, I responded to it. They treated everyone the same, from the best player at the football club to the lowest player at the football club. If they started singling people out and doing it, that’s a different story. I struggled a little bit with homesickness, and they were unbelievable to me and some of the other lads on the team who had personal issues, so I could never speak highly enough of them.”
After two months of sitting on the Rhino’s offer, Earls packed his bags and headed State side. He earned their Rookie of the year award in his first season in the United Soccer League (USL). A left-footed midfielder by trade, he would be converted to an attacking full back, linking-up with Guppy – in his final playing season – on the left wing. Earls was converted in the extra sessions where Guppy would take the wide players for one-v-one repetitions. Guppy’s idea was that the attacker would re-create that situation, in-game, at speed without realising it, thus taking an opponent by surprise. Thousands of step-overs and drops of the shoulder were practiced weekly. Earls wasn’t sure though. “I think footballers play at their best when they are instinctual. I found that the more repetitions you did, nothing ever became instinctual.” Even so, Earls followed his coach to Colorado Rapids – at the second time of asking – and stepped up to the big leagues. Major League Soccer (MLS) is the highest level of football in America. Two years after arriving in the States, he was facing down the likes of David Beckham and in that first MLS season, he struck gold. In 2010, Colorado Rapids landed the league title – known as the MLS Cup – despite finishing with the second worst record of the eight play-off representatives. They were the unfancied champions of America.
“We won the MLS Cup and I got traded pretty much that night to Seattle.”
Earls’ closeness to Guppy was affecting his relationship with manager, Gary Smith. “Me and Steve’s relationship got a bit rocky when I fell out of the team.” Guppy’s repetitions were also taking their toll too. “Me and him did fall out. I stopped doing that with him, he was kind of mad that I stopped doing that, so it created a bit of a rift, but I understand why he does it but it didn’t work for me and I don’t think it works for a tonne of players.” Earls wanted to play on instinct, with flair, while Guppy preferred a structured approach to taking on an opponent. Earls admits, “It’s the best time you’ll have as a footballer, when you play with instinct, when you don’t over think things.” Despite that, he does hold rich memories and memorabilia from his time in the Rockies at the peak of American football. An MLS Cup Champions sovereign ring with his surname embedded on the side and an impressive gold winner’s medal. Then there was the traditional visit to the White House – an occasion afforded to each major sports’ national domestic champions – six months on from their MLS triumph. Earls maintains vivid memories of meeting then President, Barack Obama, where he had invited guests and the media eating out of the palm of his hand. “He was one of the most charismatic persons I ever came across. I have never met anyone or seen anyone take control of the room the way he did.” They had a kick about on the White House lawn too before leaving, staging a football clinic for children.
There were other odd occurrences in America. Like the strange case of England Rugby fly-half and the sphere-shaped ball. Danny Cipriani – a friend of Rapid’s head coach, Gary Smith – came on trial during the 2010 MLS Cup winning season, having been banished into the international rugby wilderness. He had, “an unbelievable left foot, but was absolutely horrendous. A really nice bloke, but never in a million years was he going to make it as a footballer”, explained Earls.
“It was a strange auld time, those relationships, they hit some stumbling blocks”.
Despite the transfer to Seattle, he was back in Colorado within six months, without kicking a competitive football. It was time enough to attend the White House and to participate in the club’s CONCACAF Champions League group stage games. They were drawn against, Santos Laguna from Mexico, Isidro Metapán of El Salvador and Real España from Honduras. Armed guards accompanied them in Mexico, where they had to stay two hours away from the match venue for security reasons. In El Salvador against Metapán, Earls describes how their kit manager had forgotten their boots back at their hotel, over an hour away. “We had to get a loan of boots from Metapán. I’m a size eight, I was playing in a size 10. We ended up winning the game, in a hostile environment”. As they came out, bags of urine were thrown at them and then in the 70th minute, there was a large bang. The home side and the crowd hit the floor. “Someone thought it was a gunshot – it wasn’t that at all and the referee played on – but it was like, oh my god, where are we here?”
Back to Rochester and on to Pittsburgh
Earls stepped back to the USL and re-joined Rochester Rhinos, convincing new coach, Jesse Myers to sign him after only 10 minutes of a training trial. He stayed there for another two seasons, before moving south to Pittsburgh Riverhounds in 2014. While Pittsburgh played at USL level too, their crowds were smaller, 6,000 most weeks. “Pittsburgh is a real working-class city, there was a lot of Irish in it. It’s real blue-collar, if you work hard, they love you.” He was back in his favourite central midfield position too, dogged and determined, although the inferior USL conditions sometimes frustrated. This was never more evident than when he saw red in a game, known locally as the Turnpike Cup – a derby game between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. Earl’s back was up because the game was moved from the football stadium to the next-door baseball park. A hideous looking patch-up job was done on the pitch – particularly around what would have been the infield dirt section of the baseball diamond. That would have been enough to upset any footballing purest, never mind the sight of a local opponent with the ball in your midfield space. “I chopped the lad in half”, he jokes. Having neutralised his opponent, Earl’s ire was then drawn towards the red card waving referee – whom he man-handled. The whole incident only cost him a light eight-game suspension. To put that in context, three months previously, recent Sligo Rovers striker, Romeo Parkes, was handed down a six-month FIFA footballing ban. Parkes – also playing for Pittsburgh at the time – flew, studs up, kung-fu style into a retreating opponent’s lower back. Earl’s proclaims, “I probably should have been done for eight games alone for that tackle”.
“About five or six years ago, I took it proper serious, because I knew from playing in America, you weren’t going to be a millionaire”.
Approaching a decade in America, visa issues began to crop up and Earls began to think of his long-term future and how he might transition out of football. Art was something that had always interested him, from superheroes to comic book strips. “I had the perfect job because I trained until one o’clock in the day and then I’d draw from two until 11 – it was perfect. I did that for nearly five or six years.” His exposure to the world outside of Ireland and England helped foster his talent, adding, “I know for a fact I wouldn’t be in that now if it wasn’t for America. I always loved drawing growing up, but I tried to keep it a little bit hidden. Being a footballer, if you were drawing, you’d get battered,” he joked.
Getting slated and the FAI
It’s now two and half years since his footballing career drew to a close in Pittsburgh. His new art project was due to be slated for the Dublin Comic Con in August, although that event is now in serious doubt due to the Coronavirus pandemic. “I’m writing and drawing it myself. It’s based on Loftus Hall, it’s an Irish ghost story set in and around there.” Loftus Hall being the country mansion in Wexford about which many legends are told of hauntings and the devil. Devious is a word some might use to describe the behaviours of the FAI hierarchy in the recent past, however, it was their Communications Manager, Gareth Maher, who gave Earls a big leg-up. “Gareth Maher is a top man. He kind of gave me my big break. He took a chance at doing the John O’Shea retirement game. I did a cool cover for what they wanted – centurion armour like a gladiator – it was a cool job to do. From there, it has been kind of steady work since.”
Goal, Real Madrid
“My goal would be to draw my own Batman book, which is like someone sitting here when they are 17 saying they are going to play for Real Madrid. It is a mad goal to have, but I still put it out there to try and achieve it.”
And try he will. The hard-working Earls reminisces, casting his mind back to the beginning of his footballing journey and a conversation with his brother Stephen. “I remember it like it was yesterday. We were travelling on a bus to my middle brother’s national cup game. Stephen was saying about going to England – I must have been 11? He said, ‘if you play football every night until you’re 16, there’s no doubt that you’ll get away to England’. I’ll never forget it and from then on, I tried to play literally every single night.”
Fast forward 20 years and his desire and drive remain the same, while his lofty ambitions have been re-drawn. “The lad who draws Batman, his name is Greg Capullo, he is like the best artist in the world, he puts in 12 to 16 hours per day. So, if he puts that in, how could I not put that in and I’m not anywhere near him yet. It’s really time intensive, but it’s obviously an amazing job as well – you get to draw and I’d never complain. I’m really goal-orientated and goal-driven to get to where I want to be. That keeps you at the desk every day and drawing every day. I haven’t achieved anything yet in comics so there’s a long road ahead of me, but it’s an enjoyable one.”
Unlike Batman, the artist Earls emerged from the shadows to reveal his true identity. If he draws on that same dedication and commitment that helped him to achieve his footballing goals, what’s to stop him from doing it again and making a dream come true?